Friday, 18 February 2011

Mind the Gap

(This is a version of a paper written a few years ago as part of the Franciscan Third Order Study Initiative. More Information and papers here )


As the life of the Christian in the Church became common, humdrum, ordinary, people began to think of and look at the clergy and those living in vows as if they alone were the genuine, 100% believers.

Prompted by both a radical, exciting re-discovery of the theology of the ministry of all the baptized, and by the practical steps necessary in the face of the numerical decline of the stipendiary priesthood, new patterns of Collaborative Ministry are emerging within the Church of England. They aim to enable and encourage all the people of God in the life of Christian discipleship, whilst looking to develop new initiatives in ministry and mission within the Church. This essay is an attempt to ask if a Franciscan emphasis may shed light on this process. A brief overview of Francis’ model and how that subsequently developed will be followed by some reflection on the contemporary situation within SSF, and a consideration of pointers for the future.

Francis exploded upon a struggling and moribund Church, yet he seems to have understood the radicalism of his call as a re-call to the true roots of the tradition. Giovanna Casagrande, reflecting particularly on the stream of the early sources represented by Thomas of Celano, understands Francis, in taking the habit, making a statement as a lay penitent-hermit, surrounded by his little brothers who were principally laymen, in opposition to contemporary monastic developments placing the vowed life in institutional settings. He sums up Francis’ mission thus

From both versions of the Letter to the Faithful, we can deduce the essence of penance in terms of behaviour and attitudes: love of God, neighbour and enemies; mercy, charity and almsgiving; hatred of the body with its vices and sins; confession of sins, reception of the sacrament of the Eucharist, and respect for the priests who administer it; humility rather than ambition; not serving the world through the desires of the flesh, cares, ambitions; fasting, abstinence from vices and from an excess of food and drink.

Add to this the injunctions against oath taking and the bearing of arms in the (recreated) 1221 Rule of the Third Order, and a picture of equality before God in penance begins to emerge. Francis himself, however, struggled to keep his rights as ‘keeper of the vision,’ contributing to the administrative and spiritual tensions within the Orders both before and after his death.

The Kalendar of the Church of England, though interestingly not that of the Roman Catholic Church, preserves the tradition of regarding Francis as a deacon; he is described as ‘Friar, deacon and Founder of the Friars Minor,’ the evidence for this relying almost entirely on Thomas of Celano’s account, subsequently used by Bonaventure, of the gift of the Crib at Greccio, where Francis certainly acted as a deacon in proclaiming the Gospel. (There is also the tantalising evidence of the contemporary frescoes at S.Benedict’s Monastery at Subiaco.) Certainly Francis’ authority seems to have rested on charism rather than ordination, an unusual but not unique situation in the medieval church.

Laurentio C.Landini, in a marvellous ‘whodunnit’, traces the clericalization of the emergent Orders. The rule of 1223 states, ‘Let them be called Friars Minor’, a statement of equality testifying to the evangelical, lay basis of the first fraternity. He concludes however, that the Order had no alternative to such clericalization, if it was to survive in the atmosphere of a heresy hunting church under economic pressure, without a theology of lay discipleship. Francis placed his Orders at the feet of the Church to do with as they wished, and, notwithstanding the courage of Clare of Assisi, that is what the church did! The brothers contributed to a centralising Papal tradition, and as the Order of Penitents developed into the Third Order, it became an umbrella for some very odd communities.

The date of Landini’s work is crucial; in the wake of Vatican II, Roman Catholic communities looked to their roots for patterns of renewal. Within the Franciscan family in communion with the See of Rome is an astonishing diversity, and understandings of Francis and of Franciscanism of which, as Anglicans, we are sometimes only able to catch partial and potentially misleading echoes. Authority and access to decision making within the Catholic Franciscan family, still lies principally with those who are ordained. There seems to be a general feeling among many contemporary Franciscans that the various branches of OFM have missed an opportunity; even the constitution of the Secular Franciscan Order clearly implies that it can only function with priestly beneficence!

Within the Anglican Religious tradition, the Franciscan life is relatively young, meaning that only now is SSF beginning to face the challenges that many other communities faced in the 1960s. The communities that coalesced into SSF seem to have resisted the temptation to simply recreate an idealised medieval ‘age of faith’; the somewhat eccentric combination of the evangelical Brother Douglas, with Fr.Algy’s catholicism and the depth of spirituality of Fr.Andrew SDC represent a gift to the church for which many of us are grateful still. Peta Dunstan traces the story of the opening up to office without regard to Ordination; yet perhaps we should also consider words recorded in Brian Taylor’s conclusion to his work on the origins of English Anglican Religious, “there is still much of the atmosphere of an English public school in a lot of communities.”

Over the last 40 years, increasing numbers of First Order brothers and sisters within SSF and CSF have been ordained, a situation not without tension, while within TSSF, offices are of course open to all professed members. I am aware of a number of priests for whom the living out of the TSSF Rule became a significant and formative point in discerning a vocation to priesthood. The language of vocation now rightly belongs to all the baptized, and indeed, ought to remain central in our own formation as members of a religious order. The necessary tension but unfortunate confusion within TSSF of loyalty to the Rule balanced with our own personal opportunities and needs does seem to lead to a levelling out, an assumption that our needs in meeting together are the same. In the April 2003 Third Order Network, Dick Bird contributed some thoughts reflecting on the possibility of separate interest groups within TSSF; the article met a critical response in a subsequent issue, yet as a one time member of just such a ‘Franciscan clergy cell’, I can pay tribute to the value of such an arrangement.

In conclusion to this brief survey, it is worth asking, which Francis do we wish to model? Whichever one we choose will of course say as much about us as about Francis. In a recent work, Laurence S. Cunningham argues against ‘Francis-lite’, i.e. the Francis that comforts rather than challenges. Francis was neither evangelical protestant nor new age messiah, but an orthodox figure who loved the creation because he loved the incarnate Christ, who composed the Canticle of the Creatures in the face of intense suffering, who became at La Verna a living, stigmatized icon of the crucified in both the brutality of human pain and the reality of divine redemption. Yet we can only encounter lofty theological truths in our common life with our brothers and sisters. There is a genuine Franciscan tradition that sees ministry as an activity to which all brothers and sisters are called, though the pattern of that ministry will vary between individuals because of vocation, context and opportunity.